Child Development Theories and Examples

Some Key Ideas About How Children Grow and Develop

Child development theories explain how kids change and grow
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Child development theories focus on explaining how children change and grow over the course of childhood. Such theories center on various aspects of development including social, emotional and cognitive growth.

The study of human development is a rich and varied subject. We all have personal experience with development, but it is sometimes difficult to understand how and why people grow, learn, and act as they do.

Why do children behave in certain ways? Is their behavior related to their age, family relationships, or individual temperament? Developmental psychologists strive to answer such questions as well as to understand, explain, and predict behaviors that occur throughout the lifespan. In order to understand human development, a number of different theories of child development have arisen to explain various aspects of human growth.

Child Development Theories: A Background

Theories of development provide a framework for thinking about human growth and learning. But why do we study development? What can we learn from psychological theories of development? If you have ever wondered about what motivates human thought and behavior, understanding these theories can provide useful insight into individuals and society.

Child development that occurs from birth to adulthood was largely ignored throughout much of human history.

Children were often viewed simply as small versions of adults and little attention was paid to the many advances in cognitive abilities, language usage, and physical growth that occur during childhood and adolescence.

Interest in the field of child development finally began to emerge early in the 20th century, but it tended to focus on abnormal behavior.

Eventually, researchers became increasingly interested in other topics including typical child development as well as the influences on development.

Why is it important to study how children grow, learn and change? An understanding of child development is essential because it allows us to fully appreciate the cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and educational growth that children go through from birth and into early adulthood.

Some of the major theories of child development are known as grand theories; they attempt to describe every aspect of development, often using a stage approach. Others are known as mini-theories; they instead focus only on a fairly limited aspect of development such as cognitive or social growth.

The following are just a few of the many child development theories that have been proposed by theorists and researchers. More recent theories outline the developmental stages of children and identify the typical ages at which these growth milestones occur.

Freud's Psychosexual Developmental Theory

Psychoanalytic theory originated with the work of Sigmund Freud. Through his clinical work with patients suffering from mental illness, Freud came to believe that childhood experiences and unconscious desires influenced behavior.

According to Freud, conflicts that occur during each of these stages can have a lifelong influence on personality and behavior.

Freud proposed one of the best-known grand theories of child development. According to Freud’s psychosexual theory, child development occurs in a series of stages focused on different pleasure areas of the body. During each stage, the child encounters conflicts that play a significant role in the course of development.

His theory suggested that the energy of the libido was focused on different erogenous zones at specific stages. Failure to progress through a stage can result in a fixation at that point in development, which Freud believed could have an influence on adult behavior.

So what happens as children complete each stage? And what might result if a child does poorly during a particular point in development? Successfully completing each stage leads to the development of a healthy adult personality. Failing to resolve the conflicts of a particular stage can result in fixations that can then have an influence on adult behavior.

While some other child development theories suggest that personality continues to change and grow over the entire lifetime, Freud believed that it was early experiences that played the greatest role in shaping development. According to Freud, personality is largely set in stone by the age of five.

Erikson's Psychosocial Developmental Theory

Psychoanalytic theory was an enormously influential force during the first half of the twentieth century. Those inspired and influenced by Freud went on to expand upon Freud's ideas and develop theories of their own. Of these neo-Freudians, Erik Erikson's ideas have become perhaps the best known.

Erikson's eight-stage theory of psychosocial development describes growth and change throughout life, focusing on social interaction and conflicts that arise during different stages of development.

While Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development shared some similarities with Freud's, it is dramatically different in many ways. Rather than focusing on sexual interest as a driving force in development, Erikson believed that social interaction and experience played decisive roles.

His eight-stage theory of human development described this process from infancy through death. During each stage, people are faced with a developmental conflict that impacts later functioning and further growth.

Unlike many other developmental theories, Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory focuses on development across the entire lifespan. At each stage, children and adults face a developmental crisis that serves as a major turning point. Successfully managing the challenges of each stage leads to the emergence of a lifelong psychological virtue.

Behavioral Child Development Theories

During the first half of the twentieth century, a new school of thought known as behaviorism rose to become a dominant force within psychology. Behaviorists believed that psychology needed to focus only on observable and quantifiable behaviors in order to become a more scientific discipline.

According to the behavioral perspective, all human behavior can be described in terms of environmental influences. Some behaviorists, such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, insisted that learning occurs purely through processes of association and reinforcement.

Behavioral theories of child development focus on how environmental interaction influences behavior and are based on the theories of theorists such as John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, and B. F. Skinner. These theories deal only with observable behaviors. Development is considered a reaction to rewards, punishments, stimuli and reinforcement.

This theory differs considerably from other child development theories because it gives no consideration to internal thoughts or feelings. Instead, it focuses purely on how experience shapes who we are.

Two important types of learning that emerged from this approach to development are that classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning involves learning by pairing a naturally occurring stimulus with a previously neutral stimulus. Operant conditioning utilizes reinforcement and punishment to modify behaviors.

Piaget's Cognitive Developmental Theory

Cognitive theory is concerned with the development of a person's thought processes. It also looks at how these thought processes influence how we understand and interact with the world. Piaget proposed an idea that seems obvious now, but helped revolutionize how we think about child development: Children think differently than adults.

Theorist Jean Piaget proposed one of the most influential theories of cognitive development. His cognitive theory seeks to describe and explain the development of thought processes and mental states. It also looks at how these thought processes influence the way we understand and interact with the world.

Piaget then proposed a theory of cognitive development to account for the steps and sequence of children's intellectual development.

  • The Sensorimotor Stage: A period of time between birth and age two during which an infant's knowledge of the world is limited to his or her sensory perceptions and motor activities. Behaviors are limited to simple motor responses caused by sensory stimuli.
  • The Preoperational Stage: A period between ages 2 and 6 during which a child learns to use language. During this stage, children do not yet understand concrete logic, cannot mentally manipulate information and are unable to take the point of view of other people.
  • The Concrete Operational Stage: A period between ages 7 and 11 during which children gain a better understanding of mental operations. Children begin thinking logically about concrete events, but have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts.
  • The Formal Operational Stage: A period between age 12 to adulthood when people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts. Skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning also emerge during this stage.

Bowlby's Attachment Theory

There is a great deal of research on the social development of children. John Bowbly proposed one of the earliest theories of social development. Bowlby believed that early relationships with caregivers play a major role in child development and continue to influence social relationships throughout life.

Bowlby's attachment theory suggested that children are born with an innate need to form attachments. Such attachments aid in survival by ensuring that the child receives care and protection. Not only that, but these attachments are characterized by clear behavioral and motivational patterns. In other words, both children and caregivers engage in behaviors designed to ensure proximity. Children strive to stay close and connected to their caregivers who in turn provide safe haven and a secure base for exploration.

Researchers have also expanded upon Bowlby's original work and have suggested that a number of different attachment styles exist. Children who receive consistent support and care are more likely to develop a secure attachment style, while those who receive less reliable care may develop an ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized style.

Bandura's Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory is based on the work of psychologist Albert Bandura. Bandura believed that the conditioning and reinforcement process could not sufficiently explain all of human learning. For example, how can the conditioning process account for learned behaviors that have not been reinforced through classical conditioning or operant conditioning?

According to social learning theory, behaviors can also be learned through observation and modeling. By observing the actions of others, including parents and peers, children develop new skills and acquire new information.

Bandura's child development theory suggests that observation plays a critical role in learning, but this observation does not necessarily need to take the form of watching a live model. Instead, people can also learn by listening to verbal instructions about how to perform a behavior as well as through observing either real or fictional characters display behaviors in books or films.

Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory

Another psychologist named Lev Vygotsky proposed a seminal learning theory that has gone on to become very influential, especially in the field of education. Like Piaget, Vygotsky believed that children learn actively and through hands-on experiences. His sociocultural theory also suggested that parents, caregivers, peers and the culture at large were responsible for developing higher order functions.

In Vygotsky's view, learning is an inherently social process. Through interacting with others, learning becomes integrated into an individual's understanding of the world. This child development theory also introduced the concept of the zone of proximal development, which is the gap between what a person can do with help and what they can do on their own. It is with the help of more knowledgeable others that people are able to progressively learn and increase their skills and scope of understanding.

A Word From Verywell

As you can see, some of psychology's best-known thinkers have developed theories to help explore and explain different aspects of child development. While not all of these theories are fully accepted today, they all had an important influence on our understanding of child development. Today, contemporary psychologists often draw on a variety of theories and perspectives in order to understand how kids grow, behave, and think.

These theories represent just a few of the different ways of thinking about child development. In reality, fully understanding how children change and grow over the course of childhood requires looking at many different factors that influence physical and psychological growth. Genes, the environment, and the interactions between these two forces determine how kids grow physically as well as mentally.


Berk, LE. Child Development. 8th ed. USA: Pearson Education, Inc; 2009.

Shute, RH & Slee, PT. Child Development Theories and Critical Perspectives, Second Edition. New York: Routledge; 2015.

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